Elections in the UK have an uncanny ability to produce bizarre results. In 1951 under First Past the Post (FPTP), for example, the Conservatives won the election with more seats than Labour despite the fact that Labour won more votes in the election. In February 1974, Labour won 301 seats to 297 for the Conservatives despite the fact that the Conservatives won more votes. But it was perhaps the 2015 general election which resulted in the most disproportionate results. Staggeringly, UKIP secured only one seat in Clacton despite receiving 3.8 Million votes and the Green Party received 1.1 million votes but were only able to retain Caroline Lucas’ Brighton Pavilion seat. So, although UKIP and the Greens attracted almost 5 million votes between them, they were only rewarded with two seats.
The principal issue with our archaic voting system is that it rewards parties that have a high concentration of voters in certain areas. For example, in 2015, the Scottish National Party received 1.4 million votes but won 56 seats. This was in sharp contrast with UKIP and the Greens and largely down to the fact that SNP supporters tended to be focused in concentrated geographical areas. Another way of looking at this is in terms of the raw data from the popular vote in 2015. Whilst UKIP were in third place overall, it was actually the SNP who was officially the third largest party. The fact is, First Past the Post leaves the majority of voters disenfranchised- unless they live in a swing seat their vote is unlikely to count a great deal. Indeed, the Conservative Party was able to form a majority government based with only 36% of the popular vote. As is the case with the vast majority of post-war British governments, they formed with only minority support despite opposition from the majority of voters.
First Past the Post arguably exacerbates the inherent tribalism of British politics. Where realistically only the Conservatives and Labour have the chance to govern, smaller parties are barred from the system. Therefore minority views can be safely ignored. Another key factor is that FPTP accentuates internal party divisions as dissenting MPs know they are highly unlikely to be elected if they stand as Independents or for a minor party (there are exceptions, of course, Enoch Powell was elected as an Ulster Unionist MP; George Galloway for Respect and more recently Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless for UKIP). Under a proportional system, however, the Conservative Party, rather than being ravaged by divisions over the European Union, would have split into two separate pro and anti-European parties. This would be the case for the Labour Party who, under PR, would have to hold together the range of different factions or risk splitting into different parties- something that under FPTP, would be tantamount to electoral suicide.
If Proportional Representation were introduced, how would British politics differ today?
In all likelihood, it would end any prospect of a single party government exercising a minority rule. Indeed, overall majorities are rarely achieved under PR. Parties such as the Conservatives, SNP and to some extent Labour who have geographically concentrated levels of support would undoubtedly lose seats. Not only would smaller parties such as the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens perform better, but more people would vote for them. No longer would voting for these parties constitute a wasted vote. This would particularly be the case if Britain adopted the Single Transferable Vote System which allows for multi-member constituencies for the potential for MPs from several different parties to be elected.
As studies clearly show, the number of seats actually won by the different parties is vastly disproportionate to the percentage of the national vote. While under FPTP the Conservatives were able to ‘squeak home’ to win their first majority since 1992 (arguably due to a combination of the Lib Dem collapse and Labour collapse in Scotland), under PR they would be well short of a majority on 242 seats. Labour would also win fewer seats (down from 231 to 199) while the Scottish Nationalists would also win fewer seats (31 rather than the 56 under FPTP), although they would still remain the largest party in Scotland.
Under PR the Lib Dems (who despite a disastrous result still polled a million more votes than the SNP) would have won 51 seats making them a much more relevant electoral force than they currently are. However, it is UKIP that would have benefited the most winning 82 seats with the Greens rocketing up to 24.
What sort of government may have emerged under PR in 2015?
With the Conservatives well short of the magic 326 seats needed to form a government, it may have been that David Cameron would have needed to look elsewhere and perhaps form a coalition with UKIP which would have left him with 324 seats just two short of a majority that could be bolstered with support from the Democratic Unionist Party (who with their concentrated Protestant support wouldn’t benefit from PR winning fewer seats), or the Ulster Unionist Party who would probably win enough votes to secure a couple of seats. If this were the case, Cameron would still have been forced to hold an EU referendum except that the likes of Nigel Farage, Arlene Foster and Ian Paisley Junior would have been the ministerial colleagues to back the Leave campaign.
Arguably with government support, there would have been an even bigger Leave victory. Ed Miliband probably would have still resigned as Labour leader but whether an ‘outsider’ like Corbyn would have still been elected leader is hard to predict. Who knows, perhaps under PR, Corbyn and the Labour left would have joined the Greens years ago or a Labour leader would have emerged keen to make alliances with the Lib Dems, Greens and the SNP keen to turn a regressive alliance into a progressive majority.
Interestingly, there has also been an analysis of how the results of the 2017 general election would have differed under PR. Whilst the Conservatives would still be the largest party they would have won 276 seats rather than 317 under FPTP while Labour would be down one from 262 to 261. It would be good news for the Lib Dems who would have four times as many seats, while UKIP, despite a decline in support, would have 12 seats with the Greens on 11. There would also be a decline for the SNP who would have secured around 20 seats rather than the 35 they won under FPTP. In a similar vein, the DUP would only have won 6 seats rather than the current 10.
It is tempting to speculate what governing coalition would have emerged from last year’s election under PR. Firstly the Conservatives could have retained power with a coalition with UKIP and the Lib Dems. However, this would seem rather improbable given the disastrous experience of the Lib Dems in coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 and the vast divisions over Brexit. Even with the support of the DUP and UUP, it is likely that Theresa May would have been unable to continue governing. As for Jeremy Corbyn – like Theresa May – he would have only been able to govern with Lib Dem support which again would have been difficult given the differences between the two over Brexit. Even if the Brexit divisions could be overcome, a joint Labour-Lib Dem coalition would only amass around 309 seats so support from other minor parties. Could Corbyn hold this ‘progressive coalition ‘together? If so it would be a fascinating experiment that provides an opportunity to radically change the nature of British Politics.
Are we likely to see such change in the future where all votes rather than just a minority count and large sections of the electorate are ignored? Does the political will exist now or in the near future? Only time will tell.